E.C.B.A. the KEG Winter 2019
Max Hassel, the “Beer Baron” of Reading, PA
By Rich “Little Richie” Wagner
If there ever was a story waiting to be turned into a screenplay it’s the one about Reading’s “Millionaire Newsboy/Beer Baron,” Max Hassel. Born Mandel Gassel in Latvia, his main alias was James “Jimmy” Feldman. During prohibition he developed a syndication of breweries that rivaled any of those that developed at the turn of the last century in pre-prohibition days.
We open with a scene inside a classroom at Reading’s Hebrew school where Mandel excels in learning English. A scrubbed and smiling “Max” (“Don’t call me Mandel”) eagerly raises his hand with the answer to a question. At recess we see him networking with the other kids, not given to pushing and shoving matches. After school he is across the street at his best friend Izzy’s house where Max does quite well at marbles, winning prized “cat’s-eyes” from his friends.
The next scene opens with an exterior view of the Berks Bottling Works on South Sixth Street. Inside, Max and Izzy are sipping a well-earned soda, listening in rapt attention to Izzy’s dad trying to impress on them the value of a dollar. Hyman Liever runs the place and is not beyond pressing the boys into service hauling empty cases or pulling bottles off the bottle washer. You could say Hymie became a sort of business mentor to the boys, a gatekeeper who stressed the importance of both hard work and connections.
A crane shot of a busy Reading street on a chilly fall day establishes the next scene. We notice a corner that is literally a bee hive of activity. The camera gradually zooms in on a newsboy doing a brisk trade. Even at this age we can tell by the way Max engages his customers that this kid is headed for success in whatever he pursues. He seems to know everybody and everybody knows him, from the shoe shine boys to the shop keepers, cops, politicians and power brokers of Reading, the seat of Berks County. “Service with a smile” is Max’s motto.
We switch to cramped quarters, a street light barely illuminating a rented room on the second floor of a house in downtown Reading. Max and his brother Morris are rolling cigars using discarded molds from a defunct cigar manufacturer. They spend hours into the night making as many cigars as they can wrap before tying them up in bundles using scavenged waste ribbon. These cigars miraculously bypass any taxes on tobacco products and can be sold at a discount price but still earn a higher profit margin than the ones bearing a tax stamp.
We return to the Penn Avenue street scene and follow a well-dressed businessman as he ducks into the Colonial Cigar Store. We enter a blue-hazed environment, littered with spittoons and raucous conversations, a bastion of male culture to be sure; phones ringing off the hook; young runners delivering slips of paper before quickly returning to the streets. Were it more subdued, we might mistake this for a bank with all the bags of money changing hands. The businessman adjourns to the back room where prominent Reading citizens (above and below the law) can engage in any number of games of chance or vice of choice.
Next we open on a nondescript cinder block building near the river. Inside there are boxes, bottles and labels for all manner of food products, and a labeling machine covered in cobwebs. The real action is in the back room where two workers are gravity filling clear glass quart bottles with industrial alcohol from a small tank above. There are no labels and the bottles are corked and packed into shipping crates, then loaded into a truck or waiting boxcar on a siding behind the building.
Narrator: Whether it was at the suggestion of Hyman or someone else in the know, Max established Schuylkill Extracts Co. which necessitated getting a permit to remove thousands of gallons of alcohol and ceremonial wine from a bonded government warehouse each month. It didn’t take long for a disparity in Schuylkill Extracts’ alcohol removals and taxes paid to signal a red flag to government number crunchers in Philadelphia. Agents were dispatched and started snooping around and asking questions. Eventually it surfaced that Max’s not being a U.S. citizen made him ineligible for the permit. He didn’t have to relinquish his $20,000 bond by re-flagging the company as Berks Products Co. with Stanley Miller listed as owner, perhaps his first use of a “straw man.”
We can’t say when Max hooked up with Big Maxie Greenberg and Waxey Gordon, but the three of them became a formidable “outfit” with Max as the “brains.” Joseph “Big Maxie” Greenberg was C.E.O. He was from Michigan and had been active in the gangster scene there and was a member of Egan’s Rats in St. Louis and also in New York prior to prohibition. Irving Wexler, aka Waxey Gordon was Chairman of the Board, a protégé of Arnold Rothstein, a prominent financier of bootlegging in New York.
The three were well connected: Max, the diplomat, with the politicians and Waxey with the mob; and they possessed a deep knowledge of finance and how to use phony people and companies to keep their tracks covered while conducting an elaborate shell game. Max’s brother, Morris (C.F.O.) took care of that, running the real estate and development companies that financed brewery buyouts, laundered cash and paid protection money.
The next scene opens with an aerial view of the Fisher Brewery on North Eleventh St. As the camera slowly zooms in we see Max taking a tour through the plant, which has been idle for several years.
Narrator: The Fisher Brewery was a latecomer to Reading’s brewing scene having been established in 1891 by Stocker & Roehrich on North Eleventh Street. The Fisher family ended up with the property when prohibition arrived and let the brewery license lapse. A 21-year old Max approached the owner, Harry Fisher, about purchasing the building as well as the brewery license. Fisher was agreeable but noted that licenses would not be issued for six months, so Max set out to get his ducks in a row.
Inside the brewery office we see Max looking at the books, asking, “But where am I going to get a brewmaster?” Fisher asks Max if he had heard about the wildcat brewery operated by “Monk Miller” up in the coal region. “As a matter of fact, yes I have.” He turns to his wheel man and says, “We’re going to Fountain Springs.”
An aerial shot follows the roadster as it speeds up Route 61: on the ground we see long strings of coal cars being loaded at colleries, breaker boys, removing slate from the coal, miners emerging from deep mine shafts, street scenes in coal towns, bars and beer.
Narrator: Pennsylvania’s southern coal fields consist of a patchwork of small towns and cities, barely interrupting the vast acreage devoted to deep mining of anthracite coal. After a bumpy ride over hill and dale we arrive at the correct location, but what Max and his driver see looks more like a garage than a brewery. While looking for an entrance they are met by William “Bill” P.F. Moeller emerging from his office. Agitated, Moeller says the boss isn’t around and asks what they want. Max tries to put Bill at ease telling him that he just bought a brewery in Reading and that he’s looking for a brewmaster. With his ever-stern poker face, Bill appears nonplussed. Max continues, “We’re going to need people who know what they’re doing; we don’t want to be putting out any bad beer, or near beer, for that matter (laughs).” They follow Moeller back to his office where he had been checking a beer sample with his ebuilliometer. He records the reading and looks up, “Do you know how much money it takes to start up a brewery?” “We’ve got the money,” replies Max, “all we need is the know-how and we’re willing to pay for it. We’ve got six months before licenses are issued, do you think that’s enough time to get up and running?” Max gives him his card and says, “Think it over and give me a call.”
The camera shows Moeller watching Max and his driver speed off. He looks down at Max’s card and we switch to a memory sequence: Bill’s childhood in Switzerland where we see him working as a cooper’s apprentice, then filling kegs in a Brooklyn brewery and working his way up to brewmaster. With all of his knowledge and training he’s running a cold water brewery in the middle of nowhere; his eyes light up as he pictures the prospect of running a real brewery again.
Narrator: William P.F. Moeller came from a brewing family in Switzerland and had come to this country after learning the trade. He landed in Brooklyn and found work in breweries there, and after a while ended up at the York Brewery in Pennsylvania. He had three sons, all of whom followed him into the trade. What Max Hassel had presented to him was intriguing. He knew there were half a dozen breweries in Reading; what if they could operate all of them as branches of one company and stay true to their craft? Outsmarting the authorities would just be icing on the cake.
Our next scene opens at the Fisher Brewery with Bill and his two sons, both recent brewing school graduates, overseeing the carpenters, electricians, plumbers and millwrights who are doing what is necessary to bring the brewery back to peak efficiency. Bill’s eldest son would join them later to run the Seitz Brewery in Easton. With a sheaf of plans and papers, an animated Moeller, the elder, runs hither and yon checking every detail and demanding perfection every step of the way.
Narrator: Without a license the Fisher would be a “wildcat brewery,” but with a license it could legally make “high powered” beer before extracting the alcohol in the manufacture of near beer. Under license they could then sell the alcohol to a bonded government warehouse or someone with a permit to purchase it. Of course, it would also be possible to put out an excellent article of beer. The profit margin on untaxed “high proof” beer - and by “high proof” we’re talking in the neighborhood of 4% (is it any wonder the general public and local law enforcement wondered what all the fuss was about) - was lucrative. It cost $2.50 to make a barrel of beer that would wholesale for $10 to $15. Even with payoffs to officials, the profits were far greater than taxed beer.
The scene shifts to men loading kegs of “high power” beer from the Fisher Brewery into a box car. They close the door and a switching locomotive moves the car to a siding several blocks away where the kegs are transferred to a waiting truck. We see workmen installing security alarms and a dummy wall made of brick, on rollers, to close off access to the racking room where kegs are filled. Another scene shows a “filling station” located in a warehouse not far from the plant. It is a fully equipped off-site racking room, supplied by a hose running underground through the sewer. Moeller’s view was that “moving beer is moving beer,” whether across the building, across the street, across town (or in the case of the Seitz Brewery, across the Delaware River). We also see an assortment of “Laundry,” “Dairy,” and “Cleaners” delivery trucks leaving the Reading Brewery through a wall that opens like an inverted drawbridge.
Narrator: Max started renting the Lauer Brewery in 1923. Probably Reading’s most famous and historic brewery, still owned by the Lauer family. And in December, George W. Green, a “straw man,” purchased the properties of the Reading Brewery, which dated back to 1886. It wasn’t long before all three of Max’s Reading breweries were padlocked. When that happened his organization supplied beer from any number of plants under their control throughout Eastern Pennsylvania.
Of course a big part of any cat and mouse game is intelligence. When the State Police moved from Pottsville to Reading to be closer to the action, they hadn’t finished moving the furniture when Max had an informant at the phone desk. The same could be said for local officials who could telegraph movements of Federal agents, or congressmen in Washington, D.C. for that matter.
Picture the scene inside State Police Headquarters in October 1925 where a livid Troop C Commander, Captain Samuel W. Gerhart, is looming over a seated Trooper O’Neill demanding to know exactly what he knew about beer shipments leaving the Lauer Brewery ….and, after an interminable silence, came the reply, “…We were in on it! He paid us $150 a week,” …”How long has this been going on?” Gerhart bellowed. “Almost three months. …We didn’t tell him about the last one because we thought you were wise to us…” O’Neill said, putting his head in his hands and breaking into tears. “Just as I thought,” Captain Gerhart shouted, slamming his fist on the table. After what seemed an eternity he glowered, “Testify against Trooper Chambers and we’ll give you immunity.”
Narrator: O’Neill made his statement and was placed on desk duty in Harrisburg, Chambers was fired and found work with Max Hassel. He was charged with extortion in December and fled, leading to a nationwide man hunt. Ultimately O’Neill fled as well, and with only his written statement, and without Chambers, the bribery charges against Max Hassel were thrown out.
The scene changes to a hot sunny summer day on Laurel St. in front of the Reading Brewery. A flying squad of Agents descends in three cars. The camera zooms in on one agent as he scales a wall to open the gate to the yard. An alarm sounds and workers attempt to escape. The camera pans to a group of kids in the distance playing stickball. They notice a small foamy tidal wave coming toward them. They start splashing around and the commotion wakes up an old Dutchman sleeping on his porch. We zoom in and see him rubbing his eyes, thinking he’s dreaming, “Get all the pails you can find Mama!” he yells, “There’s a river of beer coming from the Reading Brewery!” Pan to a long shot of the street where we see people “rushing their growlers,” as well as a young lad delightedly floating along with the flow in an inner tube. A few men are standing “creek-side,” drinking out of their pails fast enough to grab another before the flow of beer slows to a trickle. The agents look out from the brewery and roar with laughter.
The next scene opens in Philadelphia's Federal District Court. There are Federal Judges, Attorneys General, Federal Agents and District Attorneys, State Police along with a phalanx of attorneys representing Max, and if necessary Izzy, with bail money or to be a “straw man” owner of one of Max’s breweries. There are animated exchanges and all manner of courtroom proceedings.
Narrator: It could be one of three major bribery hearings, or several that sought to find him guilty of tax evasion. Regardless of the circumstances Max was always in the moment and in full control. There was a groundbreaking case in which his attorney, attempting to throw sand in the wheels of justice argued for a jury trial: a prohibition-era first for alcohol cases, to which the judge agreed; only to reconvene months later and have Max plead guilty and pay a fine. But for the best scene, cut to Federal Agents waiting in the lobby outside the courtroom. When the doors burst open they see two identical, well-dressed gentlemen walking briskly in tandem down the corridor. Detective Raphael, the one tasked with issuing Max a subpoena, does a double take asking the others, “Which one is Max?” Raphael strides off in hot pursuit and the two men split paths leaving Raphael serving Morris with Max’s subpoena.
William Cusick aka “Micky the Muscler,” aka “Micky Duffy” and Max “Boo Boo” Hoff were among those in the Philadelphia mob that controlled beer. Max had some rough sledding with the Philadelphia mob, most notably over the Camden Cereal Beverage Co. But after a raid at the Foch Cereal Company, formerly the Finkenauer Brewery in Philadelphia, the Feds put a dent in their trade. That’s what prompted Max to look towards New Jersey.
Territory is everything to a mob regardless of ethnicity. The Italian, Jewish and Irish mobs supplying New York from within the city and New Jersey were often at odds. And while he was well connected, Max was entering into deep waters. He had already been advised, “Better to be a big fish in a small pond than sleep with the fishes in the deep blue sea.” When he moved to north Jersey one of the first people to befriend Max was Joseph “Hoboken Joe” Stassi, a kind of free agent, someone well connected with the Italian mob but who associated with everybody. When Max moved to the Carteret Hotel in Elizabeth, Stassi showed him the ropes and even rented a suite right below the penthouse.
The scene shifts to a table at an Italian restaurant in New York City. Meyer Lanskey and Abner “Longie” Zwillman, aka “Abe Long,” along with their utility man, Joe Stassi, have just finished dinner with Waxey Gordon, and coffee has just been served. Meyer is the first to speak, “We’ve explained how we are going to continue doing business as usual and everybody is in except Max Hassel.” Abe adds, “And Big Maxie’s big head is gettin' too big for his hat band, if you ask me.” “Don’t look at me,” says Waxey, “I tried talking some sense into them, Max is bound and determined….” Meyer looks over to Hoboken Joe, “Take care of them.” Mustering all the control of a hardened killer, Stassi, without so much as a muscle twitch says, “I’m on it boss.” Fade out.
The next scene opens two days later Thursday, April 13, 1933 with an aerial view of the Carteret Hotel. It is less than a week after repeal permitted 3.2% beer and we zoom in to the penthouse suite. It’s bustling with activity, not unlike the Colonial Cigar Store in Reading in the old days, only swankier. There’s a phone bank manned by half dozen operators, and another half dozen or so employees. Down the hall we see the exercise room where Max starts his day with a little cardio. But as we head further back we hear a heated debate going on in the conference room.
The Outfit is meeting: Waxey Gordon, Chairman of the Board; Max Hassel, the Brains; and Max “Big Maxie” aka “Big Head” Greenburg, C.E.O. There’s tension in the air. Greenburg breaks the silence, “Things are going to be tougher for wildcat breweries now that beer is legal. They’re going to stand out like a sore thumb.” Max Hassel is absorbed in a brewery equipment catalog. Waxey says, “We’re in the big leagues now, we’re playing for keeps and if we know what’s good for us we’ll go along with business as usual. That’s what the New York and Jersey guys are saying.” Hassel looks up, and points to his catalog, “This is the future. We’ve got a syndication of breweries that have been running like a well-oiled machine for the past thirteen years. We’re ready to fill the pipeline, but not without those licenses.” Big Maxie looks at Waxey , then back to Max and says, “He has a point, Max. There’s a lot of money to be made the way we’ve been operating, not to mention the potential for expansion into other venues.” Hassel replies, “Not in the long run. Operating legally is going to be more profitable, not to mention safer and there will always be ways to skim. Moeller’s been showing me equipment that will cut the residence time in tanks in half; we’ll be way ahead of the pack, right from the starting gate!”
A buzzer is heard, the three look at each other. Waxey speaks into the intercom, “Who’s there?” “It’s 'Hoboken Joe', I’m looking for my friend Max Hassel.” Gordon buzzes him in. Just as a look of recognition appears on Max’s face, a second man, Frankie Carbo lurches in from behind Joe and fills Big Maxie with lead; in a flash Hassel turns and jumps from his chair. Carbo fires a second gun in his left hand dropping him mid-leap to the floor with a thud. Carbo exits through a surprisingly empty penthouse suite and ditches the murder weapons; racing down a service stairway to the street below. Stassi and Gordon adjourn downstairs where Waxey’s girl has been waiting.
The final scene shows the streets of Reading lined with mourners hoping to catch a glimpse of Max’s final ride. Alternating newspaper headlines emphasize his philanthropy as well as his notoriety, with the final headline reading “Who Killed Max Hassel?”
Note: I’ve taken considerable “artistic license” and my screenplay represents a work of historical fiction and is an excerpted from my upcoming Guidebook to the Reading Brewery Tour to be published prior to the E.C.B.A. Convention this summer.
Note: This article contains changes/corrections that did not appear in the print version.